The Man Who Was the West … Seriously?

Early in 2009 I was wrestling over the title for what was intended to be a souvenir pamphlet for a family reunion.  I must have been watching the DVD release of “How the West Was Won” around the same time as “The Man Who Would Be King,” and the two sort of bumped into each other in my brain.  Yes, the result can seem a bit grandiose, sitting on the title page of the life story of a humble Kansas farmer who had learned to shy away from publicity.  I shrugged apologetically the first time I typed it, but that was before I learned just how apt it really is, certainly a more fitting title than that of the Western I had been watching. 

“How the West Was Won” was an ambitious 1962 epic shot in 3-camera Cinerama, an attempt to illustrate the story of the American West through members of a family who emigrate from New England to what is now the Midwest.  After their raft is destroyed while navigating a rapid, the action centers on the two surviving daughters, the husbands the girls marry, and the son of one of them.  I always had a soft spot for the film, but after spending a few years delving into real life as it was lived in the 1800’s, I was surprised at how unrealistic it now seemed.  It was how the West wasn’t.

For one thing, there aren’t enough children or spouses.  Lilith’s marriage (Debbie Reynolds weds Gregory Peck) produces no offspring at all, while Eve (Carroll Baker, who marries Jimmy Stewart) raises a pair of boys.  There could be other children, although I don’t remember seeing any or hearing them mentioned.  Both sisters are widowed, yet they never need to remarry.  Similar situations certainly must have occurred in the American West, but the film might have been accompanied by a disclaimer like the ones on testimonials for miracle diet supplements, “Results shown may not be typical.”

Thomas had two wives, and both of his wives had two husbands.  Thomas’s youngest brother Alfred never married, but his older brother William married three times.  Another younger sibling, Christopher Lovewell, died young at Vicksburg, leaving a widow who would need two more husbands to support her.  Thomas was one of a dozen children, and eight of his own would survive to adulthood.  A family of seven to ten offspring seems to have been average.

Thomas Lovewell had few of the requirements for what we would call a great man.  His life made no lasting impact outside of his own neighborhood, and his own time.  He wrote no books, painted no pictures, composed no tunes, and though he dabbled in politics, he never ran for office outside of his own township.  Any career he had as a lawman must have been largely ceremonial.  He liked to spend his summers digging for precious ores, but never made that big strike that all prospectors dream of.  The two small towns he founded have long since faded into the landscape of north central Kansas.

So, why do people continue to sift through the details of his life, and write about him?  For anyone interested in studying our collective past, he presents an almost irresistible subject.  Thomas Lovewell and the West grew up together.  He was born in the “Old West” of Ohio, the year George Sibley began his survey of the Santa Fe Trail, at that moment, America’s trade route to Mexico.  The year Lovewell turned twenty, he earned a bit of money recruiting soldiers for a war with Mexico, and Sibley’s trail was about to become their invasion route.  Immediately after the war, it was the highway to the land America had just acquired.  Lovewell threw himself into many of the movements that would shape the new West:  Land speculation, the battle over "Bleeding Kansas,” the Gold Rush, the Civil War, Homesteading, the building of the railroads, and the Plains Indian War.

For a man who never sat down with a biographer or penned a memoir, we know a surprising number of details of his life.  He entertained his family with tales about his travels and adventures, and they were an audience who paid attention and proudly shared what they had heard.  From his first reminiscence  about a Huck-Finn boyhood on the river, to the final one about an old man reluctant to tell his story for publication, we have a surviving family tale about him (If not two or three) from every decade of his long life.  Many of them provide clues that lead to documentary evidence and new discoveries.  So far, the result may be only a skeletal frame fleshed out with guesswork, but it’s an outline that also neatly summarizes the story of the West.

His life was superimposed on an era that saw staggering change.  He lived long enough to hear the death knell of what had seemed to be a limitless American frontier, before rushing off to help open a new one in Alaska.  Born before the first steam engine carried a passenger along a mile of track, he lived to witness the dawn of what must have struck him as an alien world of fast cars, jazz, skyscrapers, science fiction, and superheroes.  It is a shame he never talked to that would-be biographer, if only to tell us what he thought of it all. 

© Dale Switzer 2023